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I am No. 24601 — and so are you

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In case you haven’t seen “Les Misérables” — go see it. In case you don’t fully understand the concept of the power of grace and mercy to change a human heart — go see it.

In case you’re caught up in the drive to make others pay for their wrongs and can’t see your own — go see it.

I heard it said once that all of life illustrates Bible doctrine, and this movie does just that.

Based on the 1862 novel by Victor Hugo, the story is set in 19th-century France and begins with Prisoner No. 24601, Jean Valjean, who finishes serving 19 brutal years on a prison chain gang for stealing bread to feed his starving family.

Free at last and deeply embittered, he immediately violates his parole by stealing silver from a bishop who had kindly given him shelter, food and a warm bed. He runs off, only to be caught and brought back to the bishop’s house where the bishop lies and tells the police that he, indeed, gave the silver to Valjean. He tells Valjean, “But you forgot to take the candlesticks.”

Valjean is set free again, but this time he’s so overcome with the bishop’s mercy that he goes on to live a transformed life. The bishop tells him his life now belongs to God.

The movie fast-forwards several years, and Valjean is wealthy and respectable – a mayor and a businessman.

Enter Fantine, one of the women in Valjean’s employ, who gets in a fight with another woman and is fired from her sewing job by the foreman. She eventually becomes a prostitute to care for her little daughter, Cosette, who lives with a pair of corrupt (but also comical in the movie) innkeepers.

Valjean meets up with Fantine again when she’s sick and dying. He brings her to a hospital and as she dies he vows to care for Cosette as his own daughter. So, he goes to the innkeepers and pays a ransom for her and rescues her from a life of drudgery.

Throughout the movie, Valjean never forgets that he is still Prisoner No. 24601. He remains humble, grateful — and fearless. He pours out his life for others.

It’s an awesome picture of a life that’s been transformed by grace. He knows he deserves to be thrown back into prison and yet he is blessed.

Also throughout the movie there’s Javert, a police inspector. He’s there at the beginning, overseeing the prisoners. He’s the one who pursues Valjean continually, especially after an innocent man is falsely identified as the fugitive Valjean and is arrested. Valjean goes to the man’s trial and confesses to be the real 24601 and tells Javert to give him three days to fetch Cosette.

He gets the girl, but takes off and finds a safe place to raise her as his own daughter, although Javert is always at his heels, constantly on the hunt.

The most fascinating part of the movie, in my opinion, is Javert’s relentless obsession with the law — the law that must be obeyed, that must be followed. There is no forgiveness or mercy. There is no grace.

It drives him and ultimately destroys him.

To me, Javert is a picture of the struggle of religious people who believe it is only our obedience to the law of God that matters.

Even when Valjean shows Javert mercy by sparing his life — it would take too long to explain how, that’s why you need to see the movie — Javert can’t accept it.

Whereas mercy shown to Valjean provoked him to be merciful, a similar mercy drove Javert to despair. 

It doesn’t make sense to me, but religious people who try to live by the law genuinely hate grace and mercy. Their preoccupation with doing the right thing, with keeping the law, actually makes them intolerant and unforgiving, holding grudges, keeping score — all in the name of serving God.

In their defense, they are often as hard on themselves as they are on others.

They live and die bitter, never truly understanding that we are all prisoners deserving condemnation. We are all 24601.

However, through grace we are set free.

Only those who know they are great sinners can appreciate the far surpassing greatness of the grace and mercy of God.

 

Nancy Kennedy is a columnist for the Citrus County (Fla.) Chronicle, a sister paper of The News-Democrat. She is the author of “Move Over, Victoria – I Know the Real Secret” and other books. E-mail at nkennedy@chronicleonline.com.